Fifteen years ago, German-born chef Rainer Becker and co-founder Arjun Waney opened their first Japanese restaurant, Zuma, on a quiet backstreet in Knightsbridge. Today, Zuma is an internationally acclaimed, award-winning brand encompassing 11 venues worldwide including ones in Hong Kong, Rome and, most recently, Las Vegas.
As if this isn’t achievement enough, Becker is also the driving force behind the well-loved ROKA Japanese restaurants, of which there are now four across the capital. And let’s not forget Oblix, a British-European rotisserie that occupies, astoundingly, an entire floor of Western Europe’s tallest building, The Shard. This is not just your average success story. The Zuma brand reportedly made an annual turnover of more than $200 million in 2015. So, what’s Becker’s secret? “Attention to detail, passion and the team,” he answers modestly. An unbridled ambition might also have something to do with it.
Becker realised his love of cooking as a child while helping his mother in the kitchen and, from then on, there was no stopping him. Subsequently, he worked in some of Germany’s most highly regarded kitchens, including the Michelin-starred Königshof in Munich and latterly as chef de cuisine at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Cologne. It was his affiliation with the Hyatt Group that would define his career when, after a two-year stint at the Hyatt Sydney, Becker became executive chef at the Park Hyatt Tokyo under the guidance of chef Kenichiro Ooe, whom he cites as his biggest influence. Here Becker spent the next six years immersed in Japanese culture, learning the culinary techniques that would later inspire him to establish Zuma.
BREAKING THE MOULD
What most appealed to Becker was the craft involved in Japanese cooking. Seemingly simple dishes would actually be detailed and complicated (rice cut with rice vinegar, for example). “I wanted to bring some of that back to London and introduce modern interpretations of Japanese dishes,” he says.
Thus the ethos that underpins the brand was born: a restaurant that “delivers an authentic flavour of the East while respecting the traditions of the past” – using ancient techniques to create more robust flavours in a relaxed, fun environment based on the izakaya style of drinking and dining. Izakaya is, essentially, an informal Japanese gastropub, but it was while working in Australia, where dishes would often be shared and continuously brought to the table, that Becker first picked up on this. Clearly, it’s a winning formula. Over the years, Zuma has developed a loyal fan base of customers who return again and again for the sophisticated yet buzzing atmosphere, beautiful surroundings and exquisitely presented and perfected menu of sushi and sashimi, as well as dishes from the grill. I ask which dish Becker would recommend above all else. “It is impossible to only try one dish!” he says. “If I could pick two, it would be the thinly sliced sea bass with yuzu and the spicy beef tenderloin with sesame, red chilli and sweet soy.”
One of Zuma’s biggest USPs is the Robata Grill, which Becker introduced to Europe when Zuma opened, along with Europe’s first sake sommelier (there are 40 varieties from which to choose). The word ‘robata’ originates from robatayaki, literally meaning ‘fireside cooking’. This centuries-old method is similar to a barbecue, with food placed on skewers and grilled over hot coals. It originates from the fishermen of Japan’s coastal waters, who would cook fish on charcoal on their boats and offer it to each other from their oars. At both Zuma and ROKA, the Robata Grill is not just a cooking method, but an integral element of the overall design. Interior design agency Super Potato created a sleek and sophisticated yet informal space with counter seating, using materials to channel natural elements such as water, wind and light, with each site reflecting its particular location. “When I saw the restaurant that Super Potato designed in Tokyo, I thought it was different,” says the restaurateur. “Natural materials were presented in a contemporary way. It appears simple on the outside, but it’s not, and this matched our food – it is in perfect harmony.”
CONSISTENCY IS KEY
This perfectionism seems to be at the core of everything Becker does, but when there are so many restaurants to think about, how is the brand’s quality retained? One answer is customer demand: every new site is meticulously planned and developed with the customers’ needs and wishes in mind. Consistency is key, too. Becker ensures that every senior management team at each restaurant trains in the London flagship prior to opening. “It is hugely satisfying to hear our regulars tell us that it doesn’t matter which Zuma one is in, because it feels like the original,” he says. Last but by no means least, the team are crucial. They share that essential passion and are vital to the brand’s past, present and continuing achievements. As for his future plans, Becker explains: “Our growth will continue and we’re always looking at new sites. However, our priority is to ensure that the standards are maintained globally.” No mean feat, but Becker, with the help of his staff, will no doubt succeed.